There has been an uptick in the number of children in state DCS custody within the past couple of years.
There were 8,117 children in DCS custody as of the department’s annual report from 2012, which counted children over the course of 2011 and 2012. That was an increase of 474 children from 7,643, the number provided in the previous year’s annual report.
In the DCS Tennessee Valley region, which serves 11 counties including Bradley, Polk and Hamilton, there were 558 children in custody of the department during the 2011-2012 year.
Sandra Holder, regional administrator for the DCS Tennessee Valley region, said more caregivers for children and young people in the foster care system are needed throughout the region.
“We’re getting more children in custody than we ever have,” Holder said.
She said why children end up in the foster care system can be attributed to a variety of factors such as child abuse and neglect, but one factor the region has been seeing an increase of lately has been drug abuse.
Holder explained that drugs can compound problems that already exist within a home and can also create new ones.
“Drugs relate to all the other reasons that children come into custody,” Holder said.
John Johnson, director of foster care and adoption for the Tennessee DCS, said drugs have also been an increasing problem statewide. He said he knew of children being taken from homes where everything from prescription drug abuse to methamphetamine manufacturing were taking place.
A child ending up in the foster care system through the DCS starts with a referral from someone who is concerned about a child’s life at home. After an investigation finds reason for concern, a child is taken into DCS custody. Once a child is in the system, those involved with the case will assess the child’s needs and decide where the child will go from there.
Sometimes, a child will be placed with a relative. Johnson said about 26 percent of foster children in the state end up with relatives, and Holder said about 35 percent of children in the region are placed with relatives.
The rest of the time, a child will end up in the foster care system.
Johnson said the ultimate goal is to allow children to be back home with their families and that each child receives something called a “permanency plan” that helps make sure that he or she finds a permanent living situation. Parents who lose custody of their children have certain milestones they must meet before the children can return home. But, until then, the children stay in foster care. Those who cannot return home after a certain amount of time — which varies in each situation — can be subject to other solutions such as adoption.
The type of foster home a child ends up in depends on their needs. Some remain in a DCS foster home, and some go to foster homes arranged by private organizations that are either nonprofit or for-profit.
The DCS determines a child’s level of need and assigns a number to him or her. Level 1 is what Johnson called “traditional foster care” for children with “minimal needs.” The temporary caregivers in the DCS system require no special therapeutic training other than the hours of training that are required to be able to be able to welcome a foster child into their home in the first place.
“If a child needs a higher level of care, we contract with other organizations,” Johnson said.
Level 2 means placement in a DCS group home or contracted therapeutic care, he said. That level includes children with “lower level” mental health needs such as having ADHD. Level 3 includes children with more serious physical and/or mental health needs, and Level 4 includes children who have more serious conditions that can require hospitalization.
Caregivers in the DCS system only receive Level 1 children into their home.
But don’t make the mistake of calling those caregivers foster parents; they are known within the department as “resource parents.” Johnson said the department wanted to emphasize that the caregivers are there to help children in need of safe homes. After all, blame for the children being in the system lies on the children’s parents — not on the children themselves.
“A few years ago, we really wanted to face some of the stigma of ‘foster parents,’” Johnson said of what prompted the change in terminology. “Foster care is not their problem. People need to be resources to them.”
In order to become a resource parent with the DCS, one must be at least 21 years of age. They can be either single or married and either a homeowner or renter — as long as there is adequate space for a child to stay.
The DCS conducts background checks and fingerprinting on every adult living in the household where a foster child might stay. In addition, “a complete home study” takes place to ensure that the residence’s physical environment is safe for children.
Once they have passed those tests, potential resource parents must complete a 23-hour training course called “Parents As Tender Healers,” also known among DCS staff as the PATH class.
In addition to those things, Holder said potential resource parents need to be able to expect the unexpected.
“It’s 24/7,” Holder said. “They live with these children, listen to their problems, keep them safe ... it’s not an easy job.”
But she said resource parents she has spoken to have described opening their homes to children in foster care as a mission to help those children lead lives that are as normal as possible and have called it a “rewarding” experience.
Holder summed it up in one sentence.
“Our children deserve a safe place to stay,” she said.
Johnson said it can take around 120 days for resource parents to be approved because the department wants to take the time to be sure it is putting children into safe homes.
Anyone interested in becoming a resource parent through the DCS can call 877-DCS-KIDS.
But anyone who is concerned about a child can offer help, Johnson said. Anyone who has good reason to suspect abuse, neglect or other unsafe situations in a child’s life can call the state child abuse hotline, 877-237-0026. In fact, he said state law requires that anyone who knows of child abuse occurring must report it.